The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

February 24, 2022

Cancer “druggome” atlas reveals thousands of potential drug targets

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has integrated cancer genomics with the known catalog of drug–gene interactions to produce what they are calling a “comprehensive blueprint’’ of potentially druggable genes across cancer types. The Cancer Druggable Gene Atlas (TCDA), as they dubbed this resource, characterizes the expression, genetic alterations, and therapeutic potential of some 6,083 known genes, which they have identified as potentially druggable in various forms of cancer. Cell Reports

The lung–brain axis: How the pulmonary microbiome drives MS

A curious observation a few years ago showed that a history of smoking or lung infections substantially increases the likelihood someone will develop the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis—but nobody understood what underlying mechanisms account for this risk. Now researchers at the University of Göttingen in Germany have mapped it to the lung microbiome, which apparently serves as a safe harbor and maturation ground for effector T cells, a key pathological culprit in multiple sclerosis. They showed that when the lung microbiome is dysregulated in rats, the rodents develop an MS-like autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. Through this “lung–brain axis,” they propose, the pulmonary microbiome regulates immunity in the central nervous system and drives the disease. Nature

Eating meat and cancer risk

A massive U.K. Biobank study looking at the dietary habits of 472,377 British adults aged 40–70 asked them to report how frequently they ate meat and fish and compared that data to their incidence of cancer an average of 11 years later. Led by researchers at the University of Oxford, the study found that when compared to people who ate meat more than five times per week, the overall cancer risk was 2 percent lower for people who ate meat less often, 10 percent lower among people who ate fish but no meat, and 14 percent lower among vegetarians and vegans. Though the results are striking, experts caution the study looked at only a single self-reported data point from the beginning of the study and does not take into account things like portion size, dietary fiber intake (which can reduce colon cancer risk from eating meat), or other aspects of their diet. BMC Medicine

Hyperexcited neurons drive sleep fragmentation in aging mice

Researchers at Stanford University reported this week that they traced problems in sleep quality suffered by older mice to particular brain cells known as hypocretin/orexin (Hcrt/OX) neurons, which become hyperexcitable and drive age-related sleep fragmentation in the animals. They mapped the hyperexcitability in these neurons to the downregulation of proteins they carry known as KCNQ2/3 channels, and they showed that disrupting those same channels in otherwise healthy young mice gave them sleep problems that mimicked the older mice. Selectively activating these channels with drugs in older mice, on the other hand, helped them sleep better. Because of the close similarities between mouse and human brains and the inherent druggability of this mechanism, this study suggests a tantalizing potential new way to improve sleep quality in older people. Science

Guns surpass cars as a leading cause of years of life lost in US

A starkly tragic picture of American murder and suicide has emerged from the work of trauma surgeons at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. Reviewing a 10-year set of statistics compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), covering 2009–2018, the survey shows gun deaths have now surpassed car crashes as the number one cause of years of potential life lost in traumas. The majority of people killed by guns are male (more than 85 percent of nearly 40,000 deaths in 2018 alone), and there are stark racial disparities. About half of all people who commit gun suicide are older white males, and half of gun murders claim the lives of young black males. In an alarming trend, both are increasing, especially gun suicides. Trauma Surgery & Acute Care

Cumulative YPLL. MVC, motor vehicle crash; YPLL, years of
potential life lost.

Artificial neurons make Venus flytrap chomp

In a breakthrough that could advance brain-machine interface technology and soft robotics, scientists at Linköping University in Norrköping, Sweden, have developed the first organic electrochemical neurons based on printed organic electrochemical transistors. In a dramatic demonstration, they showed they could interconnect the artificial neurons with biological cells of the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) and trigger the plant’s chomping action with an electrical impulse. Remarkable if you are a neuroscientist, a botanist, or a robotics engineer—terrifying if you are a fly. Nature Communications

“Green” synthetic biology captures waste carbon at scale

While we normally write about developments that impact human biology, we believe that the use of synthetic biology to capture excess CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products will shape our evolution and humanity’s future. The limits so far have been in taking lab innovations and translating them to scale. Now researchers at the company LanzaTech in Skokie, Illinois, and Northwestern University have engineered a modified form of Clostridium autoethanogenum to convert waste carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide at scale from industrial refineries and municipal or agricultural waste “syngas” sources into the commercially important industrial solvents acetone and isopropanol. Combined, these two chemicals make up a $10 billion global market, and because of its role in hand sanitizers, there have been worldwide shortages and price surges of isopropanol during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature Biotechnology